Some people believe cats to be superior beings who carefully train their humans to provide for their needs. Presented here is a retelling of a story by Charles Perrault which was a retelling of earlier stories by other authors. He called his story, The Master Cat or Puss in Boots, which features a rather magical cat and a very adept trickster.
Death of the Miller
The story begins with the death of a miller who left his three sons all he had. The eldest son received the mill. The second eldest received a donkey, while the youngest received a cat. The young man, aggrieved at only receiving the cat, complained to his brothers, “You are lucky! You might earn a living from your inheritance by working together, but of what use is a cat?”
The cat overheard this and, as cats do, went and sat in a cardboard box to think about it. After a short while he went to the young man and said, “Master, do not worry about your wellbeing. If you provide me with a bag and a pair of new boots I shall prove to you that your lot is far better than you may see.”
His master did not see, but he was very fond of the cat. He knew he was very clever, having seen the tricks he had invented to catch the rodents around the mill. For example, he had witnessed him hanging by his heels from a rafter and dropping on victims, or hiding in sacks of grain, waiting to pounce. Sometimes he would even play dead to catch unwary victims. Now the youth was about to discover just how clever his cat really was.
Puss in Boots
Thinking he had little to lose, with his last few pennies he purchased his cat a bag, and had some boots made especially for him. Thus equipped, Puss in Boots set about earning his master a living.
Orkney, also known as the Orkney Islands,is an archipelago that is part of the Northern Isles. It is situated off the north coast of Scotland consisting of about 70 islands, of which 20 are inhabited. Over time the islands evolved their own folklore with Scottish, Celtic and Norse influences. An important part of that folklore are the tales of the Finfolk who have an underwater city named Finfolkaheem. They were said to spend the winter in Finfolkaheem and summer on a magical hidden island paradise called Hildaland. The Finfolk were a dark mysterious race of humanoid amphibians who moved easily between sea and land. The following is a retelling of an Orcadian folktale from various sources listed below that tells of a strange encounter an Orkney boatman had with one of the Finfolk that he would regret for the rest of his life.
A Close Tongue Keeps a Safe Head
In Kirkwall, on Mainland, the main island of the Orkney archipelago, the Lammas fair was a popular event that brought people together from the other islands.Many, many, years ago at one such gathering a local boat owner named Tom, struck a deal with a tall, dark morose-looking stranger. The stranger wanted him to ferry a cow to somewhere east of another island called Sanday. Maybe Tom should have insisted the stranger be more specific in his destination but as he offered twice the normal fee he was pleased to accept. With the agreement concluded and to the surprise of the boatman the stranger, without hesitation, easily lifted the cow off the ground and carried it on to the boat. Tom was astounded by the strength of the stranger but once all was ready set sail as was agreed.
Tom was an amiable, affable person who liked to chat. To begin with he chattered away to the stranger who simply glowered back in silence. Eventually he growled,
“A close tongue keeps a safe head.”
Tom was staggered at his rudeness but he was getting a good price so he ceased trying to be friendly and sociable and concentrated on sailing. The sullen stranger was not good company and he began to feel embarrassed and uneasy.
The stranger would only speak to direct the boatman to sail to the east of each island they passed. At last the boatman, puzzled by the route he was being instructed to take asked exactly where he was taking them. The stranger turned his dark glowering eyes upon him and growled,
“A close tongue keeps a safe head.”
Once again, although upset by his abruptness, Tom thought of his fee and decided to keep quiet and follow the instructions of the surly stranger.
After a while they came into a thick fog which persisted for some distance and then quickly lifted. As it lifted Tom saw before them a magical island that basked in a shimmering light. He could hear the sweet singing of the mermaids who had sensed the presence of a human male and the possibility of a husband.
As he eased his boat towards the shore the stranger insisted on blindfolding him. It dawned on him that the silent stranger was none other than one of the feared Finmen of local legend and he asked if that was so. The strange gave his usual surely reply,
“A close tongue keeps a safe head.”
Wanting to fulfill his contract with the stranger as quickly as possible Tom agreed to the blindfold but as it went on he noticed how the mermaids stopped their beautiful singing and began shrieking and wailing.
The blindfolded boatman could not see how easily the Finman lifted the cow from the boat and placed it on shore before returning to drop a bag of coins beside him. The Finman then turned the boat widdershins against the course of the sun and against all sea lore and with a mighty shove pushed it out to sea. No human mariner would have done such a thing and Tom was angry at the Finman for breaking the lore of the sea.
When he took the blindfold off he found the enchanted island was gone but found the bag of coins by his side. When he reached home he checked the bag finding the money was exactly what was agreed though all the coins were copper. The Finmen will not part with their silver.
Twelve months passed and Tom again visited the Lammas Fair at Kirkwall. To his surprise he was approached by the same stranger he met the previous year at the fair and invited him to drink a jar of ale with him.
“I am happy to see you again!”
said Tom cheerfully to the stranger taking a long draught of ale. The stranger’s gloomy face grimaced and he growled,
“Indeed, did you ever really see me? Be sure you will never see me again!”
As he was speaking, he took out a small box containing a mysterious white powder. Puffing his cheeks he blew some into the eyes of the stunned boatman. After promptly downing his ale the stranger left. The powder covered the eyes of Tom and from that day on he was blind and for the rest of his life bitterly lamented the day he had met the dark, sullen stranger.
Mother Shipton was one of the most famous soothsayers in Britain and a familiar figure in English folklore and traditions. Stories about her were published in chap-books from the middle of the 17th century onward. These were usually embellished and exaggerated but succeeded in capturing the public’s attention even though many of her prophecies only appeared after her death.
She was believed to have been born in the time of King Henry VII, in Knaresborough, Yorkshire in 1488 and named Ursula Sontheil. There are several variant spellings of her surname. Her mother was believed to have been a poor single girl about fifteen years old named Agatha.According to legend she gave birth to her during a violent thunderstorm in a cave near the River Nidd. Despite being forced to appear before the local magistrate Agatha refused steadfastly to name the baby’s father. She appeared to have no family or friends to support her and lived alone in the cave bringing her baby daughter up the best she could. Eventually after two years the Abbot of Beverley heard of her plight and she was taken to a distant nunnery. Baby Ursula was taken in by a local family but in the nunnery Agatha lost contact with her daughter and later died. As an adult, Ursula became known as Mother Shipton and the cave became known as Mother Shipton’s Cave and today is a popular tourist attraction.
According to tradition, Ursula was a very unattractive baby to such an extent that no one wanted to nurse her. Eventually a foster mother was found who lived on the edge of Knaresborough. Strange things happened around baby Ursula. One legend tells how one morning her foster mother discovered she and her crib missing. She roused several neighbors who set about searching the home for clues to her whereabouts. According to this legend the neighbors were attacked by strange ape-like imps and other unearthly entities that pricked and scratched them. Eventually, to the shock of all, baby Ursula was found still in her crib but suspended in mid-air halfway up the chimney. Eerie events of this kind happened on many occasions as she grew up. Plates, crockery and ornaments would fly around the room and furniture would slide across the floor to a different position. As she grew older her power of prophecy began to develop.
Unfortunately for Ursula, as she grew into a woman her looks did not improve and all descriptions of her are terribly unflattering. With a thin and sharp face covered in warts and a large hooked nose she became the archetypal image of a witch. Despite her unfortunate appearance she was said to have married a carpenter from York named Tobias Shipton at the age of twenty four. Sadly, he died a few years later and the couple had no children.
To earn a living she appears to have taken on a role as a cunning woman and made potions and remedies out of herbs and flowers to alleviate health problems for local people. She began making prophecies and her fame spread far and wide and she became known as Mother Shipton.
There were many prophecies attributed to her including events like the Spanish Armada in 1588, English Civil War from 1642–1651, Great Fire of London of 1666 and many other important events. She was said to have prophesied her own death that occurred in 1561 at the age of seventy three. One of her alleged prophecies that did not come true was the end of the world,
Like other prophets her predictions were placed in verses, rhymes and riddles that were difficult to interpret and ambiguous. However, this technique did make them suitable for many kinds of events and situations that arose.
False Prophecies, Fake News
It was many years after her death when the first publications in the form of books and pamphlets appeared in 1641 and later in 1684. It is believed that the writers of these publications were creative in the use of facts and events and many events that happened after her death were made to look like she had predicted them.
It may be that predictions sell and what is novel and unusual can strike a chord with the public who become eager for more information. This increases the chances of writers and publishers making money which increases their creative juices to flow, while inventing new stories to sell to the gullible public. Fake news is not a modern invention!
Richard Head who edited the 1684 publications was believed to have created her life story and the descriptions of her on existing legend and folklore. This had been passed on orally and possibly twisted, embellished and exaggerated along the way. Although this makes it difficult to get to know the real person, or even if there was a real person behind the legends.
Mother Shipton’s Cave
The cave where Ursula was born and later lived is now known as Mother Shipton’s Cave, or sometimes Old Mother Shiptons’s Cave. It is situated near the River Nidd at Knaresborough, North Yorkshire. Close by is the Petrifying Well that has been visited by paying sightseers since 1630 making it the oldest entrance-charging tourist attraction in England. The water in the well is high in carbonate and sulphate and immersed objects eventually become encrusted in stone.
Mother Shipton’s Legacy
We will probably never know the real truth and full story of Mother Shipton or Ursula Sontheil and very often the truth turns out more interesting than the fiction. In many ways she is the archetypal witch with her strange and lonely ways and her unfortunate physical appearance. All around the British Isles there are cases from history of women such as her who made a meager living from selling potions, telling fortunes or perhaps delivering babies. Sometimes they were known as cunning women or perhaps the local wise-woman. Although they often lived on the edge of society they performed important roles that could not be done by those within. In many cases the different behaviour they displayed might see them as being part of the autistic spectrum or perhaps some psychological disorder. Nevertheless in her life, she seems to have achieved a reasonable degree of success with stories of how she could find lost or stolen objects and predict the future with some success. It seems that after her death her reputation was exaggerated and embellished by others to suit their own purposes and some scholars doubt she ever existed.
The 1st of May is also known as May Day, Beltane or in Wales Calan Mai or Calan Haf. In Welsh mythology and Arthurian literature it is often linked to the beginning of an adventure or the unfolding of significant events. More sinisterly, it is also linked with the abduction of a female by a male suitor, a recurring theme in Welsh mythology and Arthurian literature. Presented here is a brief discussion on the abduction of Creiddylad and the battle by two warring suitors for possession of her, which takes place every May Day until Doomsday, when there must be a final victor.
Gwyn ap Nudd
In Welsh mythology Gwyn ap Nudd was a ruler of Annwn and the Tylwyth Teg and also associated with Glastonbury Tor. His name means “white son of Nudd,” though he is often described as having a blackened face. His father was Ludd, who was also known as Lludd of the Silver Hand and he may have had a sister, or step-sister named Creiddylad, but the relationship, if any, is not clear. He accompanied King Arthur in the story of Culhwch ac Olwen.
Creiddylad briefly appears in the tale of Culhwch ac Olwen. She has been likened to Persephone, the Greek vegetation goddess associated with spring and fertility who had been abducted by Hades, the king of the underworld. Her mother, Demeter searched for her neglecting her duties and causing the earth to stop growing. She is eventually found and after the intervention of Zeus is compelled repeatedly to spend half the year in Hades and the other on Earth, representing winter and summer respectively.
Creiddylad was considered the most beautiful maiden in the island of Britain. She had two suitors; Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwythyr ap Greidawl. Some scholars regard Creiddylad as the prototype for the legendary Queen Cordeilla of the Britons in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s pseudo-historical, The History of the Kings of Britain. Later William Shakespear’s character Cordelia from his play King Lear was thought to have been inspired by Geoffrey’s version though not everyone accepts this view.
Gwythyr ap Greidawl
Gwythyr ap Greidawl was the son of Greidawl Galldonyd, one of King Arthur’s knights. Gwythyr was also one of Arthur’s knights and a member of his retinue along with Gwyn in the tale of Culhwch ac Olwen.
The Abduction and Conflict
Creiddylad and Gwyther were betrothed but before they were married Gwyn ap Nudd forcefully abducted her. Gwythyr raised an army to confront Gwyn and win back his betrothed. In the ensuing battle Gwyn is victorious taking a number of important prisoners. These included Dyfnarth his son, Glinneu son of Taran, Gwrgwst Ledlwm, Graid son of Eri, Pen son Nethog, Nwython and his son Cyledyr. In an act of sheer cruelty the Gwyn made Cyledyr eat the heart of his father which drove him mad. From then on the epitaph Wyllt meaning madness was added after his name with him becoming Cyledyr Wyllt.
On hearing of the hostilities, King Arthur intervened setting the prisoners free and making a peace agreement between the two. This stipulated that Gwyn and Gwythyr would fight for Creiddylad every year on the 1st of May until Doomsday. Whoever won the fight on Doomsday would win Creiddylad for his bride. Through all this time she would remain unmarried living with her father until the contest had been settled.
Creiddylad as a Goddess
There is an idea that Creiddylad may represent a fertility goddess and the battle between the two rivals is to choose the strongest and most virile to be her husband to ensure the fertility of the earth.Caitlin Mathews in her book, King Arthur and the Goddess of the Land – The Divine Feminine in the Mabinogion, explains how certain female characters in the Mabinogion may be seen as representing a Goddess of Sovereignty. The possession of such a female by a male gives the possessor sovereignty over the land. Some times she is called the Flower Bride and considered the spirit of new growth, renewal and fertility.
With both ideas possession is one thing and keeping her is another. In both roles her task is to ensure the fertility of the land. Therefore, he who would be king must be the strongest and most virile. He must also be the steward of the land taking care of it and its inhabitants in return for sovereignty over it. There is an idea that the well being of the land is intimately tied up with the well being of the king. Should the king weaken and fail so will the land. There will never be a shortage of suitors for the goddess or Flower Bride and inevitably she must choose the strongest and the most potent for her consort to ensure the fertility, renewal and well being of the land she bestows. This may look immoral to a patriarchal society but it is her sacred duty to protect and ensure the continuance of life on the land and her morality cannot be judged in such terms.
Birth, Death and Renewal
These abduction stories are also often linked to birth, death and renewal of life and crops and nature. They may also be connected with the battle of light and dark and the cyclical changing of the seasons but not all scholars accept these ideas. In Arthurian literature there are several similar examples involving the abductions of Queen Guinevere and other ritualistic duels between two warring males that may also be seen in this light.